Robert Durst, the New York real-estate heir and celebrity murder suspect who twice chose New Orleans as a hideout, moved closer Wednesday to escaping another hot Louisiana summer behind bars.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt sentenced the ailing Durst, 73, to an agreed-upon 85-month prison term on a federal gun count resulting from a search of his room last year at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown New Orleans.
A call from the hotel to retrieve his voicemail drew authorities, who were pursuing Durst, the subject of the then-running HBO miniseries “The Jinx,” in the 2000 execution-style slaying of his longtime confidante and spokeswoman, Susan Berman, in Los Angeles.
Engelhardt endorsed a recommendation sought by Durst’s attorneys for him to serve his sentence at a low-security federal prison facility on the Pacific coast while he awaits state prosecution for Berman’s murder.
Durst, appearing frail in orange St. Charles Parish jail scrubs, reurged that request before Engelhardt on Wednesday.
“I’ve been waiting to get to California for a year so I can state my not guilty” plea in Berman’s killing, Durst said. “If there’s anything you can do to speed up that process, I would truly, truly appreciate it. I am not guilty of murdering Susan Berman.”
In a legal filing this week, his attorneys cited Durst’s “advanced age and poor health” in their request for him to be housed at FCI Terminal Island, a federal prison with medical facilities near Los Angeles.
An elaborate deal with federal prosecutors, confected as part of Durst’s guilty plea in February to a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm, would have him back in California by Aug. 18 for his arraignment in the murder case. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McMahon said Wednesday that it’s likely Durst will leave within a few weeks for California, assuming the federal Bureau of Prisons accepts the judge’s recommendation.
The gun charge stemmed from a search of Durst’s hotel room on March 14, 2015, which turned up a flesh-colored latex mask with salt-and-pepper hair, five ounces of marijuana, more than $100,000 in cash and a loaded Smith and Wesson .38-caliber revolver, authorities said. His attorney said Durst has forfeited those items, including the cash, as part of his plea deal.
Following his guilty plea in February, McMahon said he suspected Durst had been headed to Cuba to try to evade arrest in Berman’s killing.
Engelhardt had held Durst’s guilty plea in abeyance pending a probation report that recommended a sentencing range of just 12 to 18 months on the gun charge. But Engelhardt, in formally accepting the deal Wednesday, noted that it also includes stipulations that authorities in New York won’t prosecute him over financial maneuvering while on the lam, and that prosecutors in Texas and New Orleans won’t pursue further gun counts against him related to his stay in New Orleans.
Dick DeGuerin, Durst’s longtime attorney, said the deal “cleared the decks, at a cost. It’s a serious cost, but he’s not facing any other prosecution except what’s in California. That’s what this is all about. We want to get to California and go to trial.”
DeGuerin, describing Berman as Durst’s “best friend,” again insisted that Durst didn’t kill her and doesn’t know who did. He said Los Angeles prosecutors have not revealed any new evidence in the case but that he’s confident Durst will beat the murder rap.
“He didn’t do it. That’s as confident as you can get,” DeGuerin said outside the federal courthouse Wednesday.
Renewed interest in Durst for Berman’s killing stemmed from the conclusion of the HBO show. In the final episode, Durst made what some observers described as a confession while muttering to himself off-camera, still wired with a microphone on a trip to the bathroom.
“What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” Durst said.
The show cataloged three presumed killings of which Durst has been suspected: Berman’s slaying 16 years ago; the killing of a Texas neighbor, Morris Black, for which Durst was acquitted, despite dismembering Black and dumping his remains in Galveston Bay; and the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen Durst, in New York in 1982.
Durst was a felon because of guilty pleas in 2004 to interstate transportation and possession of a firearm by a fugitive of justice. He had jumped bail in 2001 after being charged in Black’s killing.
While on the lam, he moved for a time to New Orleans, where he rented an apartment under a woman’s name, court records show. Authorities later found a wig used to support his alias and a money clip that had belonged to Berman.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.